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An Epiphanic Interview With Mary Ruefle
The Kenyon Review blog has published an interview with Mary Ruefle–conducted over mail! Interlocuter Andrew David King also wrote an introduction for the conversation a week or so ago, in which he gently emphasizes his admiration for Ruefle’s work. Notably: “In Madness[, Rack, and Honey], she posits a problem that every great poem has, ‘the problem of itself, and how it got stuck in space—how it got wedged in this world—the problem of being-in-the-first-place.’ Despite the apparent massiveness of this Heideggerian concern, despite her assessment of the problem as ‘unsolvable’ and endlessly frustrating, she argues that it’s not a problem we should want to abolish or escape, but one we should ‘preserve and honor.’”
To keep having problems: this is, flippantly put, Ruefle’s epiphany. To keep re-arranging the squares of the Rubik’s cube, the vases on the sill, the books on the shelf, the subjects of one’s thoughts, the marks on a given page. The words “madness”, “rack”, and “honey” came to her in a dream, and the coincidence of their appearance is enough, it seems, to merit dedicating an essay to their excavation; they are, like the veritable eagle’s nest of quotations, letters, scraps of books, speech excerpts, and memories that constitute her collection of lecture-essays, just several of the infinite slots on Fortune’s wheel. All of which is to say that Ruefle’s writing vibrates with an epiphanic energy more than it seeks proper epiphanies, or anything remotely agitprop. Thankfully, this vibration is constant, never self-satisfied; though some elements approach camp, others staleness, they hardly ever enter it, lingering instead on the precipice that overlooks them. She is, in other words, saving the epiphanic from the hokey, commoditized fate it often finds at other hands (the lyric poem being, after all, a “little bit of masturbation”). This epiphany—from the Greek word for “reveal,” epiphainein—is not a singularly locatable reward, not a slice of cheese at the end of a maze of couplets, but a way of existing that, despite the connotations of its name, somehow manages to transcend the distinction between the religious and the secular for some other, out-there realm.
Which might relate to this excerpt from their conversation:
KR: A good amount of your work seems preoccupied in the theological: “Heaven on Earth” begins with an epigraph from Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (“My heaven will be spent on earth up until the end of the world”), for instance, and continues on in canonical-looking stanzas in the voice of a nun. Likewise, “The Beginnings of Idleness in Assisi,” “Magnificat,” the mention of the Psalms in “Sweet Morning,” of Heaven in “My Timid Eternity,” the parable-esque tone of “From Memory”—all of these works name the theological in some way. Is this a purely aesthetic engagement for you? Or is poetry, maybe, a kind of spiritual practice—or can it be likened to one; is its affiliation with the ineffable coincidental, or can the two pursuits and practices be, at times, one and the same?
MR: My preoccupation with God—what you call the theological—is not aesthetic—that would be awful! Any art who encounters the spiritual in their work is driven to do so out of a genuine preoccupation with existence, with being. At least I hope so. I am not religious in the traditional sense of the word—I do not belong to a church, or practice any one of the numbers of ritualistic belief systems. But I am interested in them all, and I find in each something of essence. As for poetry, of course it is a spiritual practice, in so far as it celebrates or laments the human spirit, in so far as it is always deeply curious about something—it could be language, or the natural world, it could be the absurdities of culture, or human beings in general or in specific—how to live, what to do, these are the questions of poetry. Environmental concerns—they are ultimately spiritual ones; if you are interested in how persons will experience the world in the future, well, that’s something you can’t see. What is the point of recycling if you don’t have faith that it is the right thing to be doing? That it impacts something you can’t see and don’t understand.
KR: I wanted to ask you about several essays from Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures, starting with “On Secrets,” in which you write that a poet “may know that the most eloquent word is a stone, but he must never say that or the silence would be broken, the silence he keeps by speaking—.” What exactly is this relationship between speech and silence in terms of poetry? And what is it about objects—simple objects, I suppose, like stones, that need nothing said about them and are therefore “complete” in some way—that makes them, as it were, model words, model poems? If we’re writing poems with a fallible medium (language), and knowingly stepping out of such completeness to do so, is there any possibility of getting back inside it?
MR: No, I don’t think there is any way that we humans, we persons, can speak for the completeness of stones by writing poetry about them, but the beauty of it is that that never stopped anyone from trying! We are an incorrigible species. We attempt the impossible. We aren’t stones or trees, but we like to pretend we are, I mean some of us do from time to time, and it is more than pretentious, it is the very fiber of our being—to be pretentious. It comes naturally to us, this extension of being. If you try and fight it, you will lose. Our minds are an extension of ourselves, we extend ourselves in ways that are not natural. The invention of the hula hoop—did we really need that?
They also discuss erasure, distinctions between prose and poetry, knowledge and art, and public literature. Worth a good read.